Amazon was one of the first retail websites to allow negative reviews of the products that they sold to appear right in the listing. This revolutionary practice which has been mimicked earth-wide at this point was one item focused on in Brad Stone’s recent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Updated below with personal statement from Craig Berman, VP Global Communications at Amazon.
The book, which I found very interesting and a great read overall, was released last month and is available on Amazon’s site for purchase. In what can only be seen as a moment of delicious cyclical irony, a new fairly negative review of the book has been posted by none other than Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos’ wife, MacKenzie Bezos. We’ve confirmed the identity of the reviewer, the only peson to leave a one-star reaction so far.
MacKenzie’s review is an intriguing read, and features the incredible qualifying disclosure “Jeff and I have been married for 20 years.”
In her review, she calls out what she feels are ‘numerous factual inaccuracies’ in the book, including one right off the bat:
In the first chapter, the book sets the stage for Bezos’s decision to leave his job and build an Internet bookstore. “At the time Bezos was thinking about what to do next, he had recently finished the novel Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, about a butler who wistfully recalls his personal and professional choices during a career in service in wartime Great Britain. So looking back on life’s important junctures was on Bezos’s mind when he came up with what he calls ‘the regret-minimization framework’ to decide the next step to take at this juncture in his career.” It’s a good beginning, and it weaves in nicely with what’s to come. But it’s not true. Jeff didn’t read Remains of the Day until a year after he started Amazon.
MacKenzie also takes an exception with the fact that the book, in its effort to delve into the motivations of Bezos, strays from fact and into the realm of ‘characterization’ too often:
“Bezos felt…” “Bezos believed….” “Bezos wanted….” “Bezos fixated…” “Bezos worried….” “Bezos was frustrated…” “Bezos was consumed…” “In the circuitry of Bezos’s brain, something flipped…” When reading phrases like these, which are used in the book routinely, readers should remember that Jeff was never interviewed for this book, and should also take note of how seldom these guesses about his feelings and motives are marked with a footnote indicating there is any other source to substantiate them.
Notably, Stone’s book starts off with an account of a meeting with Bezos at the beginning of the project. Stone went to him to get Bezos’ blessing to approach friends and family and other acquaintances for interviews. This theoretically improved Stone’s chances of getting those people to talk without fear of Bezos’ displeasure. When MacKenzie notes that her husband ‘was not interviewed’, this may indicate that followup questions about those collected accounts were either not asked or not answered by Bezos.
The tension between laying out a business narrative and a ‘ripping yarn’ is also addressed by MacKenzie’s review. I found myself thinking about this several times while reading, though without the advantage of her first-hand knowledge of events. It was also at the forefront of my mind when reading NYT reporter Nick Bilton’s book ‘Hatching Twitter’, as it too delved into the minds and motivations of its subjects to create an emotional portrait of some situations:
But when an author plans to market a book as non-fiction, he is obliged to find a suspenseful story arc that doesn’t rely on mischaracterizing or avoiding important parts of the truth. I am grateful this is the era of the Internet, when characters in non-fiction can step out of books, as Jonathan Leblang and Rick Dalzell have done, and speak for themselves. Ideally, authors are careful to ensure people know whether what they are reading is history or an entertaining fictionalization. Hollywood often uses a more honest label: “a story based on true events.” If authors won’t admit they’ve crossed this important line, their characters can do it for them.
The two other reviews that she references are those of Jonathan Leblang, a current Director of Kindle at Amazon’s Lab126 facility and Rick Dalzell, a former SVP at Amazon. Leblang’s review takes some exception to Stones’ revelations about Bezos’ biological father (from whom he has been estranged for years). Dalzell’s focuses on the inaccuracies as well, including a passage about Bezos’ laugh which has been bandied about quite a bit:
While I found it rather interesting, lots of stories are missing or just inaccurate. Brad painted a one-dimensional picture of Jeff as a ruthless capitalist. He completely missed his warmth, his humor, and his empathy — all qualities abundantly present in the man.
One of my favorite things about Jeff is his laugh. But Brad’s quote from me implies exactly the opposite: “You can’t misunderstand it,” says Rick Dalzell, Amazon’s former chief information officer, who says Bezos often wields his laugh when others fail to meet his lofty standards. “It’s disarming and punishing. He’s punishing you.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. In actuality, Jeff’s laugh is spontaneous, sincere, warm and endearing. It diffuses stressful situations. Clearly, Brad misunderstood me.
Obviously, without first-hand knowledge of the events I can’t speak to the 100% accuracy of the text, but I can say that the book is probably worth reading, despite the notes on accuracy. Leblang, for one, also says the book is worth reading, in spite of that.
The response by MacKenzie Bezos is a valuable resource for those who have or plan to read the book, helping to offer some perspective from the other side of the coin. I found it interesting that one of Bezos’ first questions to Stone as noted in the book is how he plans to handle the ‘narrative fallacy’.
“The narrative fallacy, Bezos explained, was a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories.”
Taleb’s solution in the book is to side-step the desire to tell stories or rely on memory, instead being as precise and clinical as possible — relying on data to support the narrative. Obviously, MacKenzie Bezos believes that Stone’s book didn’t do quite enough of that, and has taken to one of Amazon’s first nods to data over narrative — the customer review — to voice her displeasure.
We’ve reached out to Stone for any comment on the reviews.
Update: Craig Berman, Amazon VP of Global Communications, reached out to us with an additional note on Stone’s research for the book:
Over the course of the author’s reporting, Amazon facilitated meetings for him with more than half a dozen senior Amazon executives, during which he had every opportunity to inquire about or fact-check claims made by former employees. He chose not to. I met in person with him on at least three occasions and exchanged dozens of emails where he only checked a few specific quotes. He had every opportunity to thoroughly fact check and bring a more balanced viewpoint to his narrative, but he was very secretive about the book and simply chose not to.